BigRentz Thinks Big

Oct. 10, 2018
Tech company scores with 21st century rental model.

Years ago, when people were looking for a restaurant, a hotel, an airfare, or almost any product or service they hadn’t ordered before, they typically started with the Yellow Pages. For the most part, that era is over. The first place most people begin to look now is the internet. With every passing year, the numbers of people making internet searches for virtually any item increases.

Contractors who rent equipment are no different. If they can arrange a rental with just a few touches on a computer screen, they are increasingly likely to do so. And for rental customers who need to plan jobs in a different city or state from where they usually do business, the internet is a tool they are increasingly comfortable with.

When the era of internet start-ups began in the late 1990s, it began in the equipment rental industry as well. Companies came along that purported to do business in models similar to Travelocity or Orbitz in the airline or hotel industry. And while such portals did well in those industries, they never really succeeded in equipment rental, perhaps because they tended to only emphasize cheap rates rather than the complex service requirements of equipment rental. Reserving a flight or a hotel room was similar to ordering a book or a set of sheets online, there wasn’t much complexity to the transaction. For the most part, the commodity was ordered, and everything was taken care of.

Not so in equipment rental. Making sure it’s the right machine for the job, that the delivery is on time, that communication takes place with the customer in case of a delay, or breakdown on the jobsite, or a number of other issues that could cause a complication – these issues were not so easily dealt with on a simple internet portal.

But, finally, an internet company came along that is learning to understand the complexities and concerns inherent in the equipment rental transaction; and offers other value-added benefits. It’s called BigRentz and it seems to be working. It may have taken BigRentz a bit of time to learn the unique dynamics of rental, but it is figuring it out to the point where it is now averaging hundreds of transactions per day nationally – and that number is growing.

“We’re expecting the best year we’ve ever had in 2018,” says BigRentz CEO Scott Cannon. “We expect somewhere between 30 and 50 percent growth this year if not more. We’ll do somewhere in the range of 35,000 or 40,000 rentals this year.”

The difference in the way BigRentz operates, compared to past efforts by internet portals, is that BigRentz takes on responsibility for service, pickup and delivery, in short, all aspects of the rental process. When a customer orders a rental through the BigRentz platform, all further communication takes place between the customer and BigRentz. If the delivery is going to be late, the communication comes from BigRentz. If there is a breakdown, the customer contacts BigRentz, and the BigRentz staff communicates with the rental company. Billing is taken care of by BigRentz, which pays the rental company (minus its fee of course).

“Because of the type of customers, the subset of customers that we’re dealing with, people like the fact that they’re dealing with one supplier instead of thousands of small ones,” says Cannon. “It makes it easier for some of these rental companies to service those accounts. We’re a full-service rental house in that if the customer has a challenge, if the equipment doesn’t work correctly, if it’s not delivered on time, if it needs to be picked up, if there’s maintenance, if there’s an issue, they call us. We act as a liaison to the [rental] supplier, we manage the whole thing. We’re in the middle of the process.”

For the customer, as long as everybody does their part, it works well and has some distinct advantages. For example, there was one customer that had a contract with a retail chain to remodel certain sections of its chain stores in all 50 states. That contractor didn’t have go looking for different rental companies in dozens of different cities and towns, often in small communities where the major players didn’t always have an immediate presence. All it needed was one relationship with one company that could take care of finding rental partners in every area the customer needed.

Any business, looking towards its future to determine the likely success or failure of its business model, needs to think ahead and ask itself if there will be continuing demand for its products or services. Online searches for the types of equipment BigRentz offers has increased by about four million per year over the past few years according to third party research studies, and as customer behavior indicates continuing growth in use of the internet to find solutions to problems as well as products, the future would appear bright for BigRentz.

But it is the company’s aggressive marketing efforts that are paving the way for its own growth, making sure the company is listed near the top of the page on internet search engines, positions that are often difficult for smaller, independent companies to obtain. For many of those smaller rental companies, the association with Big Rentz makes it easier for them to compete with larger players because of its prominent presence on search engines.

 “The challenge for the small independent or even the regional players, even though they put more emphasis and effort into their websites, is that it’s hard to compete from a search standpoint,” says Cannon. “Also, it comes down to domain authority -- there are barriers to entry. The big guys have really spent a lot of money carving out their space, they get so many hits on their websites. It’s hard for a small independent to compete because the best place to hide anything in the world is on page two of Google. And that’s where our value comes in, to act as a partner to the small independents. We represent them because we’re competitive from a domain authority standpoint.”

BigRentz occupies a unique position in the rental industry. While it is competing for rental orders, it is a partner to many of the rental companies in a particular market. It isn’t trying to put other rental companies out of business. On the contrary, if it prospers, those other rental companies prosper as well and the customer base for rental grows.

“We look at ourselves as a partner to the equipment rental space,” says Cannon. “We’re not here to disrupt it, we’re not here to be harmful to margins. Our biggest value is accessing the equipment in our network. A lot of the larger rental equipment companies re-rent from us, they need it to keep their core customers and their key customers happy. We’re part of the process, we’re not here to change it, but just be a good partner and a good steward and act as a sales and marketing arm to mostly small, independent rental companies across the United States.

BigRentz has grown to about 2,100 rental company partners, about 1,700 of which are active. It represents more than $50 billion in rental assets. It partners with rental companies of all sizes. About half of the RER 100’s top 10 are among its partners, as are many of the RER 100. Hundreds of regional and smaller independent rental companies are part of its stable of rental company partners as well.

The rental process

Here’s how it works – if somebody wants to rent a scissorlift in Sheboygan, Ill., they go to BigRentz’s website, tells it where the job is, what they want to rent and when and where they want it delivered. That rental opportunity becomes available to rental companies in that marketing area that are part of the BigRentz network. The rental rate is listed on the website, the rental company clicks on it and the rental is theirs. The transaction can be arranged in just a few minutes with just a few keystrokes. BigRentz notifies the customer when the order will be delivered and when it’s on its way.

BigRentz does not force advanced technology down the throats of its customers. If the customer prefers to do business via phone, they are happy to oblige. BigRentz call staff is available for 15 hours on weekdays and eight on Saturdays, with 24-hour availability when needed. And phone calls are often required for more complex rental needs.

“If there’s an order for a 180-foot boom lift, then it’s probably not something on QuickRentz [BigRentz’ mobile app],” says Keith Holmes, vice president of operations, and formerly director of supply. “It might take more logistics to move it around, so then there’s the phone call side. It’s really about what works best for your business.”

Learning curve

As with most new companies – BigRentz was founded in 2012 -- there were some growing pains. “There was a learning curve for our company because most of the people in the early stages of the company didn’t come from the rental industry,” Cannon says. But the staff was hard working and diligent and learned the rental procedures and developed the ability to communicate well with the rental companies it works with.

“Understanding what supplies have to go if they get a piece of equipment, that’s part of the education my guys had to learn,” says Holmes, who led the process of developing the rental supplier network. “The customer might call you at 10 o’clock in the morning for a forklift and they need it to be out on the jobsite by 5 p.m. But if I wait two or three hours, the truck might have filled up. So just understanding the amount of work that goes into making sure the equipment is prepped and having a driver available that can get it out was important for us. At the end of the day it allows us to work more efficiently with those suppliers.”

Cannon joined BigRentz at the beginning of 2017, having previously worked in the logistics industry, most recently running an international logistics company which he, along with four other partners, sold to a large private equity company.

One of the partners was a Los Angeles-based private equity company that also invested in BigRentz. The company, St. Cloud Capital, brought Cannon together with BigRentz founder Dallas Imbimbo, who is, as Cannon puts it, “a serial entrepreneur” but not an operations type. Imbimbo was looking for someone to take over the operations of BigRentz and decided Cannon was a good fit. Imbimbo stayed on as chairman of the board, while Cannon took over as CEO, later becoming board chairman as well, with Imbimbo remaining on the board.

While Cannon was new to the rental industry, he understood the immediacy of the rental transaction. “I was involved in a ‘same day, next flight out’ business – specimens, medical devices, aviation equipment -- so if you needed to get the item to New York today, that’s what I did,” he says. “We would have 15 different alerts on every order so with everything that was going on you could track it in real time, see a picture of an airplane that was flying it, see a picture of a vehicle on the street, we could track it at all times. This industry will get closer to that eventually because the technology is there.”

A niche within a niche

BigRentz sees itself as a niche player in the equipment rental industry. It doesn’t see itself competing for the large industrial jobs or high visibility major contractors on big jobsites that primarily do business with the large national rental companies.

“We really do well with small contractors, the guy who’s a sub of a sub,” says Cannon. “We’re looking for customers that have a wide geographic footprint, somebody who’s going to do 100 retrofits at Walgreen’s over a two-month period of time, and it’s got to be done over four states. That’s a natural customer for us because even the largest [rental] company in the world can’t fulfill that need from a competitive standpoint all the time. That’s a natural fit for BigRentz.

“And one of the reasons I’m here is that we look at the business differently today than we did a year or two ago. We’re much more efficient at how we market, who we market to, who our customers are. We’re not going after a $60 billion industry, we’re going after a $12 billion or $14 billion industry. And we’re very narrowly focused on a subset of customers that really work with a company like us, and that’s why we’ve had success.”

BigRentz is also a niche player when it comes to the type of equipment it rents, primarily specializing in boomlifts, scissorlifts, telehandlers and forklifts, which make up the majority of its rentals. It also offers some earthmoving equipment and light compaction machines.

“We’re going to put an emphasis this year in expanding our compact earthmoving equipment and some stuff on the maintenance side like floor scrubbers,” says Cannon. “We do some cranes and site services but it’s a small part of our business today.”

Previous efforts by other companies to develop a portal approach to rental have tended to approach the market by trying to offer low rates, which is not the BigRentz philosophy.

“We’re never going to be a low-price provider, the prices we advertise online are market-based,” says Cannon. “We spend a lot of time and effort researching what rental companies are charging, we’re right in that middle road and that’s the approach we’re probably always going to take. We’re not here to hurt margins, we’re here to save the smaller suppliers and rental companies sales and marketing.”

Rather than attract rental companies by offering low rates to prospective customers, BigRentz tends to help smaller rental companies by offering marketing opportunities.

“Because they can’t compete with some of the larger companies in the space and we’re able to perfect our sales and marketing to help them,” Cannon points out. “I give the example of a local [rental] supplier. It’s really a true ‘mom and pop,’ it’s a husband and wife. We’ve been able to push them over 200 customers in the last year that they never would have seen because [the renters are] national accounts and [the husband and wife] don’t have the sales and marketing resources to reach them. And it has transformed their business, it’s generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue that they quite frankly couldn’t otherwise get. And so that’s the kind of relationship we’re trying to have with the people in our network. Obviously with the larger companies we’re not as material, but we’re also a sales and marketing arm and help deal with a difficult customer base for them, a customer base they wouldn’t spend a lot of time and effort on. We aggregate that and put leads in their direction, and they’re usually pretty appreciative.”

Another smaller rental company was trying to do business with an Amazon fulfillment center about five miles from its rental center. Its salesmen were trying to get in the door for years but couldn’t because the person who does the ordering didn’t operate out of that location. That company’s first rental with Big Rentz was for that Amazon fulfillment center.

Another benefit BigRentz offers its rental suppliers is if the rental company is interested in exploring the possibility of expanding to another market and wants to test the demand in that area. Checking out what demand is like on BigRentz is a way the company can measure demand for different equipment before making the investment to actually set up a branch there.

Foosball and table hockey

Visiting BigRentz’ office in Irvine, Calif., is quite different than a typical rental company in many ways. There is no equipment onsite, nor is there a showroom or rental counter. It also differs from most typical offices. The atmosphere is far more like a technology company – which it is. Walk around the office and you’ll see some ping pong tables, dartboards, foosball games, a wheel of fortune and a table hockey set. In one corner is a video-watching area and a collection of what Cannon jokingly calls “every video game ever produced.”

“It’s a different environment for me, coming from the international logistics space,” Cannon laughs. “Coming here to a technology company with big bean bags and dart guns all over the place, people flying drones in the afternoon, it’s a bit of a cultural shock.”

Rooms in the office have names like “crane room” or “skid-steer room.”

Sayings on the wall exhort employees to “think big”, “be weird” and “let the impossible happen.” There is a wall with a shelf showing an item from each employee. When a new employee comes they have to tell something about themselves and put something on that shelf that represents them, creating an atmosphere of bonding and sharing.

While a hang-loose, fun environment is part of the BigRentz vibe, typical in a tech culture, the emphasis is still on working hard. A loud bell goes off when BigRentz reaches its rental transaction goal for the day.

One area of cubicles is where the software engineers work. Another is a call center, where as many as 30 people staff the phones during peak hours. Some are taking care of customers calling in to rent equipment. Others are dealing with different issues that might arise in the course of a workday – an equipment breakdown, a change of schedule, calling a piece of equipment off rent. Calls are also related to sales or administrative functions just as in any rental business. Staff in one area covers strategic accounts, taking care of very large accounts, and others manage other rental partners or OEMs. Some phone calls might be vetting renters to make sure they are qualified to operate the particular unit they want to rent. Or they might be trouble-shooting in case a customer is having technical problems with a machine.

Evolution of BigRentz

BigRentz essentially had to create a marketplace by developing a customer base and a core of rental suppliers. To develop it, Holmes and his team travelled the country.

“They spent a lot of time on the road, developing relationships with a lot of morning coffees and donuts and taking people out, it’s a very relationship-based industry,” says Cannon. “We also market to them digitally. Keith has four people working for him that split up territories that spend time traveling and dealing with the respective regions. On the sales side we spend most of our time on digital marketing.

We have a full-time digital audience engineer. If you go to Google and you type in scissor lift rental, you see the advertisements up top. You’ll see us ranked in the top three or four companies in the space.”

“We realized relationships were important so how do we actually build relationships and get to know our suppliers,” says Holmes. “There was a lot we had to figure out, but my team’s main focus was ‘Let’s get to know our suppliers and understand their work flow and figure out how we can work together.’ Other people who have come into this space have been like ‘We’re going to be XYZ’ but you need to approach it like you’ll be a partner. I think we’ve done that pretty well by getting to know the people that we’re renting the most from. And figuring out how can we improve our work flow together and not push it down their throats for whatever we want.”

Another benefit of BigRentz is that it actually works for its rental suppliers without them having to concentrate on it. One rental partner tells of being out to lunch with another regional manager from the same company when BigRentz’ QuickRentz app informed him of a rental opportunity through a text message. He gives a quick answer via one keystroke.

“I just rented a 45-foot boomlift for a month,” he tells his lunch companion.

“I thought you were just answering a text,” the other said.

It was as simple as that.

Trending upwards

Big Rentz has yet to do business through a downturn, which, of course, is a test for many businesses, certainly one as cyclical as equipment rental. However, the trends among businesses and individual consumers towards utilizing the internet to search for one’s needs is likely to continue to trend upwards. And as long as BigRentz continues its emphasis on customer service, its prospects of trending in that direction as well appear to be strong as well.